I have a mystery concerning the birth records of slave children in Virginia and I’m hoping this post might lead to some answers to my questions.
While researching our connection(s) to the Cocke and Chastain families of Virginia, I discovered a mystery with regard to the parentage and birth records of slave children that are recorded as “born to” followed by the name of the known owner.
Was the owner the biological father, or was this a matter of expediency and self-interest, ensuring the births of new slaves would be recorded as proof of ownership?
In the case of Estienne “Stephen” Chastain, M.D. (married to Marthe Du Puy), the birth records of slave children are recorded as follows in “Documents, chiefly unpublished; Huguenot Immigration to Virginia and to the settlement at Manakin-town, with an appendix of genealogies, presenting data of the Fontaine, Maury, Dupuy, Trabue, Marye, Chastain, Cock, and other families.”
It is important to note that Estienne Chastain’s death is recorded as just on or about 21 Aug 1739, while that of his widow Marthe was on 23 Apr 1740.
All births of black slaves prior to 1739 are attributed to Estienne, while those in 1739 and after are attributed to Marthe, making it impossible for these children to have been fathered by Estienne.
The 24th day of the month of July was born to Estienne Chastain a black named Tobye, 1727.
The 8th June, 1728, was born a black girl to Estienne Chastain named Janne.
The 19th March (?) was born a black girl to Estienne Chastain.
The 17th February, 1731 , was born to Estienne Chastain a black girl named Suson.
The l0th July, 1739, was born a black to Marthe Chastain, named Samuel.
The 27th February, 1739, was born a black girl to Marte Chastain, named Pegg.
The 6th Xber, 1740, was born a black girl to Marie Chastain; her name is Nani.
The 31st Xber, 1740, was born a black girl to Marte Chastain, her name is Moll ; she died the nth January, 1740 .
From the research I have conducted, I learned that slave owners in some parts of Virginia took more care to record the births of their slaves in their private and business records to ensure they were legally recorded as their property. However, I’ve so far been unable to find information about birth records of slave children in the community birth registers like the ones listed above – not just the family’s business and slave ownership records. These facts lead me to believe that the plantation owner may not have been the father. Would there have been some other indication if he were the biological father of any of the slave children?
I am, however, still looking into it as there is no proof of this conclusion.
According to the Ancestry.ca Wiki page:
During the antebellum period, keeping vital records had not yet been mandated by many state governments. For that simple reason, official vital records do not exist for slaves, or for anyone else, in many of the states prior to the Civil War. Yet, as always, there are exceptions. For example, Kentucky enacted legislation in 1852 (repealed in 1862) requiring birth and death registrations in all counties. The birth records were to include children born to slave mothers, indicating date and place of birth, sex, and name of owner. A year later similar legislation was passed in Virginia. It has been noted that slave owners may have been more intent on registering slave births than the births of their own children, a motivation likely arising from the need to protect their property by an act of official registration.
Similar motivations may have spurred the baptism of slaves by their owners. Such baptism records are often just as detailed as those for whites. The majority of such records, at least those which are extant, appear to be from Anglican/Episcopalian churches. Unfortunately, many of these registers have probably been lost, especially those of Virginia.63 The situation is much better in South Carolina, where the records of a number of Low Country churches survive, many extending well back into the colonial era. These contain extensive slave baptismal records, some including the names of both slave parents as well as owners. The South Carolina Historical Society has microfilmed many of these records and made them available on microfiche.
It has already been noted that the personal papers of slave owners can contain records of slave births and deaths. Consider the possibility of slave births and deaths being noted in the slave owner’s Bible, together with those of his own family. To be sure, this was not a typical practice; however, when it did occur it likely reflected a small slaveholding of perhaps one or two slave families who had been in the possession of their owners for several decades.
To add more confusion to the situation, there is also a slave birth recorded to Estienne and Marthe’s daughter Marie after the death of Marthe. Marie had inherited the slaves as per her mother’s will.
If anyone has any information concerning the practice of registering birth records of slave children, especially when the biological father was the white slave owner, I would appreciate hearing. Without definite proof, would you come to the same conclusion as I have?
“Cotton gin harpers”. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons